The Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program: Why Everyone Should be Concerned
by Bob Sloan
From the late 19th century into the depression years, Americans struggled economically.For the man and woman on the street to the businesses, companies and manufacturers vainlytrying to keep their enterprises afloat, those were difficult times. States strained to overcome thedesperate financial situation which held citizens captive as a result of few jobs and even lessincome or money available for business capital.To partially overcome the public’s lack of – and need for – everyday household,agricultural and other necessary items, many states began allowing their prison systems to put prisoners to work producing products for consumers. Many of those goods were distributedoutside the state of manufacture and began to compete with private sector companies, whichwere already having difficultly finding markets for their products in the slow economy.
Legislating Limits on Prison Industry Programs
In 1924, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, held a conference on the“ruinous and unfair competition between prison-made products and free industry and labor” (70Cong. Rec. S656 (1928)). As a result of that conference, an advisory committee was formed tostudy the issue. The need for such a committee was in response to complaints from private sector businesses alleging unfair competition from more and more prison-made products finding their way to the marketplace. In 1928, the committee issued its report to Congress.The eventual legislative response to the committee’s report led to some very importantfederal laws regulating the manufacture, sale and distribution of prison-made products. Congressenacted the Hawes-Cooper Act in 1929, the Ashurst-Sumners Act in 1935 (now known as 18U.S.C.
1761(a)), and the Walsh-Healey Act in 1936. Walsh controlled the production of prison-made goods while Ashurst prohibited distribution of prison-made products in interstatetransportation or commerce. Both statutes authorized federal criminal prosecutions for violationsof state laws enacted pursuant to the Hawes-Cooper Act.The pertinent language of these laws, as amended, now provides:“Whoever knowingly transports in interstate commerce or from any foreigncountry into the United States any goods, wares, or merchandise manufactured, produced, or mined, wholly or in part by convicts or prisoners, except convicts or prisoners on parole, supervised release, or probation, or in any penal or reformatory institution, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more thantwo years, or both.”Thus, for several decades to come, the manufacture of prisoner-made products for publicor private sale and distribution was prohibited. Certain prison industry products were exempted by statute from the Ashurst-Sumners Act, including “agricultural commodities or parts for therepair of farm machinery.”Codified at 18 U.S.C.
1761, the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program(PIECP, or “PIE” as it is commonly called) was implemented in 1979. PIECP relaxed the